The teenage years are never simple. There are the hormones, the ridiculous high school hierarchy, the peer pressure, the homework, and in Jacob Barber’s case, the murder accusation. Okay, so Jacob isn’t a normal teenager. But until recently, his parents thought he was.
In Defending Jacob (now streaming on Apple TV+), the 14-year-old title character (Jaeden Martell) goes from homeroom to a jail cell when a classmate turns up dead and he’s suspected of the murder. Based on William Landay’s best-selling 2012 novel, the Massachusetts-set limited series stars Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery as Jacob’s parents — his defenders, if you will. But when their son becomes the biggest news story in town, their seemingly normal existence is thrown into a blender of accusations, rumors, and curious stares.
“Their lives are completely turned upside down,” Dockery, best known for her six-season run on Downton Abbey, tells EW. “The show asks how far you would go for your family.”
Although the mystery at the center of Defending Jacob is strung together with the kind of precision reserved for the best dramas on television today, it’s less of a whodunit than it might seem on the surface. This thriller is just as much about the toll such an accusation can take on a family, and what happens when parents start to doubt their own child’s innocence. “Laurie goes through so many different emotions, and the guilt was something that was there in the text,” Dockery says. “Something that was very important to portray is the guilt that you feel as a parent in any situation, but particularly this. ‘Why are we in this situation? Where did it go wrong?'”
Over the course of eight episodes, as the Barber family is put through the wringer, Laurie and Andy will learn just as much about each other as they will about their son, because Jacob’s not the only one with secrets.
Like most parents, Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery have some thoughts about Jaeden Martell’s hair.
The trio play the seemingly idyllic Barber family in Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob, and before the show’s April 24 debut, they staged a makeshift family reunion on Zoom, with Dockery calling in from her home in London, Evans from Boston, and Martell from Los Angeles. As soon as the video feed flickered on, all three began waving and grinning at the sight of each other, like any long-distance kin who’ve been separated by quarantine. Evans immediately started peppering the 17-year-old Martell with playful questions about his newly bleached blond hair: “Is that for work, or is that for you?”
“Just for fun,” Martell replied. “Because why not?”
“It looks great!” Dockery gushed, as Martell pointed out Evans’ recent buzz cut. “It’s utilitarian,” Evans said with a shrug, running his hand over his head.
Even separated by several time zones, Evans, Dockery, and Martell have an easy chemistry that makes them particularly believable as a family unit. And at first, Defending Jacob’s Barber family seem to be every bit the close-knit, white-picket-fence suburbanites they present on the outside. Their sense of normalcy shatters, however, when a local boy is found stabbed on a nearby jogging path. The boy, Ben, was a classmate of 14-year-old Jacob (It alum Martell), and the youngest Barber is soon arrested on suspicions of murder. Suddenly, mom Laurie (Downton Abbey’s Dockery) and dad Andy (Evans, a.k.a. Captain America) find themselves rushing to defend their son, as they privately question how well they really know him — and each other.
Writer Mark Bomback and director Morten Tyldum adapted William Landay’s 2012 novel into eight episodes, following the Barbers as they hole up in their house, dodging accusations from law enforcement, inquiries from the media, and dirty looks from neighbors. As an added wrinkle, Andy is an assistant district attorney — specifically the assistant district attorney who was investigating Ben’s murder, up until his own son’s arrest.
Ahead of the show’s premiere on Apple TV+, Evans, Dockery, and Martell open up about deceit, trust, and family bonding.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is such a wild, twisty story. What was it that made each of you want to be a part of this?
MICHELLE DOCKERY: I was really compelled by the scripts that I read initially, which I think were the first three. I just thought it was an amazing story and quite different to most crime dramas, as it focuses more on the effects it has on the family. That certainly was an interest for me. And Mark is just such a brilliant writer. For me, it always starts with the material.
This show has a lot of the hallmarks of your traditional murder mystery thriller — red herrings, cliffhangers, hidden secrets. But it’s uniquely centered on this family relationship and the idea of trust. What was it about that theme of family that you guys wanted to explore?
DOCKERY: They differ in their journey so much, Andy and Laurie. So much of the struggle for her is the guilt that she carries: “Is this true? Is this my fault? Did I do something wrong?” And I think it really highlights what parents go through, the anxieties that come from being a parent, how you create this person.
This feels like a little bit of a departure for each of you. Did you get to try any new skills or explore any new territory?
DOCKERY: I mean, it’s always challenging playing Americans. I’m having to play them a lot at the moment. I had to work just that little bit harder because with an accent, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I learned with this one that it does take a bit more homework.
What do you think was your biggest challenge on this show overall?
DOCKERY: For me, it was how emotional the role was. There were moments where I would have to say to Morten, “How far should I go in the scene?” As we were piecing it together, I was always thinking to myself, “Am I crying in every scene?” [Laughs] It was important to strike a balance with Laurie [where] she wasn’t a complete wreck the whole time. That was a challenge, trying to find the moments where she really holds it together and the times where she was allowed to fall apart and be vulnerable.
The series follows Massachusetts District Attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans), who begins working with the cops to investigate the murder of an eighth grader in his small town and very quickly learns that the main suspect is a classmate — his son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell). But instead of examining the case through Jacob’s eyes, the story is told through Andy and his wife Laurie’s (Michelle Dockery) as they grapple with the accusations against the child they thought they knew.
Dockery was last seen on the small screen as a Southern con artist in TNT’s Good Behavior. But for Defending Jacob, the Brit best known as Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary didn’t even attempt to make her American accent a notoriously difficult Boston one.
“I love a challenge. If it had been a Boston accent, I would have gone for it. I would have dove in and hoped for the best,” says Dockery. “It’s not an easy accent, so I was pleased that it was just a general American accent for Laurie. I do really enjoy playing characters that have accents and are from completely different backgrounds from me. I’ve rarely played characters that are my own voice. I think I’ve done one project where it was my voice, everything else has been an accent.”
The entry point for the series, really, is through Andy and Laurie’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that maybe they didn’t know their child as well as they thought they did, and the ethically and morally questionable things that these normally law-abiding parents would do to protect him.
“This is, in many ways, a nightmare. It’s the worst possible thing that could happen to a parent,” says Bomback. As investigators, they’re way too biased. “They have everything to lose, and they’re going to bring so many facts to this that may be irrelevant, maybe aren’t. In many ways, my job was to give you this very subjective experience watching it, that you are the third parent in this equation and trying to weigh in. What do I think? Hopefully the audience at some points will say, ‘Oh, I’m sure he must have done it.’ ‘Oh, I don’t think he did do it.’ And part of the fun, for lack of a better word, is where does that intersect with where the parents’ heads are at that same moment?”
And while Andy makes some decisions that a good prosecutor would know skirt the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable, Laurie is consumed with guilt that she had dismissed some of Jacob’s questionable behavior in the past, and that she could potentially be culpable in a child’s death.
Says Dockery, “There are two parents that are both trying to cope in their own way. And at times it really clashes, and it begins to chip away at their relationship. Another great thing about the show is that it really explores a marriage and what something like this could do to a couple.”
Chris Evans may have played superhero Captain America on-screen, but he admits that a real acting challenge for him has been playing a parent.
Defending Jacob follows the Barber family and what happens when their only child, Jacob (Jaedan Martell) is arrested on charges of killing a fellow classmate.
Jacob’s father Andy, played by Evans, happens to be the district attorney, which causes an extreme moral conflict for Andy as he tries to support his son while not really sure of the boy’s exact involvement in the crime.
Downton Abbey alum Michelle Dockery plays Jacob’s mother, who struggles to understand just how to help her son, and suffers social ostracism because of her parental actions.
Dockery says that she signed on to play the maternal figure in Defending Jacob for reasons similar to Evans. “What I was drawn to is really tapping into how you would react as a parent and what lengths you would go to to protect your child. And I’d never really read anything like this before. I was just so instantly drawn to the project. She’s very different from any other character that I’ve played.”
She added with a slight smirk, “You know, I like doing accents, so I liked playing another American.”
Morten Tyldum, executive producer and director of the series, says that assembling the family was key to the success of the series. “One of the things we were worried about is did we really believe in and care for this family? The heart of this story is about a family who’s experienced this extraordinary situation, this nightmare, this thing that both tears them apart and pulls them together in some way. You need to believe 100 percent that this is a family.”
To that end, Dockery says, “I felt like it was very easy for us to become a family on set. We all had a really lovely time together in spite of the intensity of the subject matter.”
A good thriller keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. A great thriller keeps viewers on the edge of their seats even when they know what’s coming. Just ask Defending Jacob star Michelle Dockery, who watched all eight episodes of the limited series — based on the 2012 William Landay bestseller — after filming. “I kept holding my breath!” she says. “Watching a thriller like that is what we [as viewers] love. That [intense] feeling you have as the story unravels.”
For the Barber family, unimaginable problems pile up quickly. Happy suburban couple Laurie (Dockery) and Andy (The Avengers’ Chris Evans) are blindsided when their mild-mannered teen son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell, Masters of Sex), is accused of stabbing a classmate to death. Immediately, the Barbers’ close-knit community turns on them. “The way it’s portrayed, it’s very real,” Dockery promises. She lets us in on more neighborhood secrets.
How faithful is the series to the book?
Michelle Dockery: What’s great about this story is there are so many twists and turns, and the TV version is very similar. And there are some added twists and turns, certainly. So you never know quite which way it’s going to go. The book is a real page-turner, and each episode has a cliffhanger.
There’s a scene where Laurie insists, “A mother knows her child.” Do you think she’s blinded by her love for Jacob?
I want the audience to see it as it plays out. But the show brings up questions of how far you would go to protect your family. Can you believe your child? Do you believe your child?
After the news of his arrest breaks, Laurie’s best friend shuns her, and the Barbers’ house is vandalized. Many in the community assume Jacob is guilty from the outset.
It’s out there immediately, and social media plays a huge part in that. Certainly Jacob’s face is everywhere. They can’t go anywhere as a family. On top of having their lives completely changed, everything is pulled from under them and they have nothing to hold on to.
Shifting gears a bit, last year’s Downton Abbey movie was such a hit. Would you be up for playing Lady Mary again in a sequel?
I would love to. We had such a good time doing the film, so if there is an opportunity to do another one, I hope that we would all hold hands and jump in again.
We’re all stuck inside these days. What are you watching?
Reruns of The Sopranos. It’s one of the great shows of all time. And I’m loving [cheerleading docuseries] Cheer on Netflix. I’m on Episode 2 and already crying and rooting for them all!
Check out a short roundup of what was said during the panel.
Huge thank you to Claudia for her help!
Michelle Dockery spent a decade living 100 years in the past – as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. Now she’s gearing up for a dazzling future.
Out of her period dress, Michelle Dockery is one of those stars who is at first difficult to place, so familiar are we with her trussed up as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. For Tatler’s cover shoot for the February issue, Fashion Director Sophie Pera dressed her in slick tailoring from Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton, wearing a chic yellow Chanel jacket on the cover with a generous dose of diamonds thrown in for good measure: there wasn’t a flapper hemline or elbow-length glove in sight.
Sitting down with Tom Lamont at one of her favourite local restaurants in north London, she opened up about getting used to the fame that came with being on Downton. ‘People want to know a bit more about you, because you’re on their television screens,’ she explains. ‘It’s the nature of the business. That’s something I accept now. I’ve learnt that it’s a privilege to have the power to cheer people up. When somebody asks you for a picture, answering yes is the right way to go.’
She’s certainly grateful for the impact Downton has had on her career. ‘I feel grateful,’ she says. ‘I’d achieved a lot by the time I was 30. I was in one of the biggest shows in the world. It’s very rare something like that happens. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. But it’s put me in a position now where I can slow down. This business, it never really stops. You do something, you promote it, you’re on to the next job. I’m at a point where I’m learning: I need to find ways to switch off. Unwind.’
Her latest role is something of a volte-face: dropping F-bombs alongside Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant in Guy Ritchie’s latest, The Gentlemen. ‘It came quite naturally,’ she says of dropping the plummy accent she honed on Downton. ‘I grew up in Essex. There’s a way of talking I grew up around. And finally being able to play a character whose accent has an Essex sound, as mine does – I loved that. I’ve been playing well-spoken for so long, to do something closer to my roots was so much fun.’
She’s recently been linked to Jasper Waller-Bridge, the brother of Phoebe. When asked about her relationship with her boyfriend’s famous sister, and if she’s ever offered her any advice, she’s reticent, saying: ‘This is something that’s personal.’ She does offer some advice though, adding: ‘I guess what I’ve learnt is to keep talking about the work. There are a lot of other things that come along with success and that would be my advice for anyone: keep your head down, make it about the job.’
The February issue is on newsstands 2nd January.
Best known as Downton Abbey’s indelible Lady Mary, MICHELLE DOCKERY effortlessly transitions from haughty aristocrat to corrupt cockney in Guy Ritchie’s new gangster movie, The Gentlemen. LAURA CRAIK talks to the British star about her working-class roots, embracing a golden age of opportunities for female actors and why working with Ritchie, Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant and her idol Jeremy Strong was a dream come true.
Michelle Dockery is about as different from Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary as is imaginable. Dressed in Totême boyfriend jeans, white Adidas trainers and a black cashmere turtleneck, she is warm, effusive and quick to laugh where Lady Mary is frosty and composed, and she has an accent not dissimilar to Victoria Beckham’s. “It may come as a bit of a shock to everyone when I open my mouth in the film,” she smiles.
“The film” is The Gentlemen, a classic gangster caper written and directed by Guy Ritchie in a return to the genre that first made him famous. “Charlie [Hunnam, one of Dockery’s co-stars] is calling The Gentlemen ‘vintage Ritchie’, and I think that’s right,” she says of the British director behind Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. “I play Rosalind, who is the wife of Matthew McConaughey’s character, Mickey,” Dockery explains. “He has these marijuana farms that are growing underneath stately homes, hence the title The Gentlemen.”
Marijuana farms? What would Carson say? Dockery laughs. After six years playing Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey – first in the well-loved TV series (which has won 15 Emmys and been watched by an estimated 270m people worldwide) and latterly in the movie – her role in The Gentlemen was a great departure for the 38-year-old British actress. “Rosalind runs a car dealership, which she’s inherited through her family. She’s a real, tough, east-London girl. I grew up in Essex, and my family has a sort of east-London background, so it was great to step into that world.”
To say the cast of The Gentlemen is “stellar” is an understatement: in addition to Dockery, McConaughey and Hunnam, the movie stars Hugh Grant (who plays equally against type and appears as a corrupt and predatory reporter), Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, and Jeremy Strong, most recently seen as the troubled Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession – of which Dockery is a huge fan. “I mean, this whole interview could be about Succession,” she laughs. “It’s absolutely brilliant, the best thing on TV. Every single character is Shakespearean. I loved working with Jeremy. We only had one scene together, a dinner-party scene, and I would never have seen his character the way he played it. He was a joy to watch, and worlds away from Kendall.”
Click here to read the rest of the interview.